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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag

Here's a sampling of the mail that landed in the ombudsman's inbox while I was away last week. The messages still deal heavily with the new, weekly "Need to Know" public affairs program that made its debut on May 7. The comments coming my way after the second broadcast on May 14 are still mostly critical but there are some glimmers and nuance.

Here Are the Letters

After only two sessions some would have Alison [Stewart] and [Jon] Meacham on the chopping block. Really? Maybe that says more about the critics' rush to judgment. Both A and M had to face TV cameras with several strikes against them — all documented in the criticisms. Their critics may not have done as well. My own impression? They are highly intelligent, knowledgeable, and quite charming. I plan to give them a fair hearing. They deserve that from viewers, particularly from those who view themselves as informed.

Pauline Laybourn, Minneapolis, MN

I am so disappointed in the "Need to Know" program. I found that only one segment — the Texas board of education influence on US textbooks — had any merit. When Alison & Meacham discussed their viewers' letters, apparently they didn't read your column. Is PBS listening to us at all?

What is the mission of "Need to Know"? What reason has been given for removing "Now"? Why is PBS claiming that "Need to Know" is giving us critical information?
Just what is [Executive Producer] Shelley Lewis trying to do? Recreate more of fluff like her "Good Morning America"? Can we hear from Ms. Lewis or her boss, Neil Shapiro? How on earth can they claim that this show is anything but a step down from NOW or Moyers?

E. Rivers, Portland, ME

It's inappropriate for the PBS ombudsman to express his personal opinion about what is funny or not. That's not your mission. And for the record, you are wildly out of step with the vast majority of PBS viewers, who love Andy Borowitz. See their comments for yourself.

Dan Bernstein, New York, NY

I join others who do not like Need to Know. The program last night went over information that has been discussed to death. The funny man at the end was just awful and inappropriate. Jon M. is usually interesting when interviewed by others but in this venue he's lost and his makeup makes him look like death. I don't like anything about this show. Please bring back World Focus or find someone to fill Bill Moyers' shoes and bring back those producers. Don't give us another Cable News Type program — give us something that we can wrap our minds around — interesting people — people and stories you don't hear from anywhere else. We don't need another glitzy news program.

Overland Park, KS

No Slam, But . . .

Apparently like others before me, I'm deeply disappointed in the "Need to Know" program that is, I assume, supposed to replace the greatly-missed and much-needed programs of "WorldFocus" and "NOW." Those 2 programs, along with 2 other news-related shows, were the reason I have been a supporter of PBS. Those programs brought to my attention news and events about which I would have otherwise been completely unaware. I don't mean to slam the "Need to Know" people. I'm sure they are hardworking and well-meaning. But their efforts do not equal — in scope, depth, or content — the output of "WorldFocus" and "Now." Please bring those programs back. We need them desperately.

Oklahoma City, OK

More on Need to Know . . . I simply want to state that there is an immense difference between "knowing" and "wisdom". . . You've traded the latter (Bill Moyers and guests — also David Brancaccio's wisdom of issues behind the external picture) for something we are too much obsessed with, "facts" . . . What we need is WISDOM!

MK O'Daniel, Omaha, NE

I have now watched two Need to Know episodes — the second being worse than the first. It is not necessarily the content — it is the lightweightedness — the almost amateurishness of both journalists that strikes me . . . and their decidedly uncharismatic manner. It is almost as if the "powers that be" had taken over PBS and said — "hmm . . . wonder how we can best destroy a world renowned, well respected, trusted progressive venue without being accused of bias — or intrigue?" "Let's put on two youngish stiffs that don't have any gravitas, and let them pay lip service to the 'important liberal subjects' but make it so unappealing that no one will want to watch." If this was the intent then whoever was behind the decision-making process may give each other high fives . . . and pen a bestseller featured on FOX — "How to destroy the last vestige of intelligent programming in the US, without (looking like you're) really trying." Congratulations, if this was PBS's intent — you have succeeded.

Ch C, New York City, NY

You have seriously misjudged your audience and the level of anger out here over your ill-conceived decision to axe NOW in favor of infotainment — hoping, it seems, that we won't notice David and Maria being replaced by . . . who? We noticed. Have analytical skills. Not buying it.

Leslie & Mike McClintock, Missoula, MT

The Pause That Comes After a Good Dessert

Thank you for providing a place for viewers' concerns, and suggestions. I would imagine that your job isn't especially easy at this time since the Bill Moyers Journal and NOW have left PBS's programming schedule. I can appreciate, and understand Bill Moyers needing to leave to do some of the things he's missed out on while working on his program. His leaving is a loss for many, and we'll miss him terribly.

What I'm having difficulty in understanding though, is the cancellation of NOW. To me, it was, if can use a dining metaphor, like having a scrumptious dessert after having had a fine meal — it was just the right end to a perfect evening out. I can't say that I always relished what I heard on either of the above programs. Some of the topics and problems that were discussed were difficult to hear about, and could be disturbing. Maybe that's what good journalism is; something that gives us reason to pause, step back and reflect about issues outside the routines of our daily lives, and how they affect us.

I do feel that we viewers need to give "Need To Know" a chance to find its footing, and iron out the wrinkles that must accompany any new endeavor — it's only fair. I would offer though, that in light of all the hideous things that are going in the world, leading off with a program that dealt with birth control might not have been the wisest choice of material. That's not to demean their presentation, or the subject matter, which I found interesting, and thoughtful.

Dennis Flynn, Bay Point, CA

The e-mails raising suspicions about the show replacing Moyers struck a chord with me. Moyers got to the meat of real and pressing issues and cared not one whit about whose ox he might be goring. The Bill Moyers Journal did not give us pablum — we get enough of that elsewhere. Makes me wonder whether the corporatists who now run this country are also exerting influence over PBS.

Bob Balhiser, Helena, MT

Advice to Frontline

I love watching Frontline. But in the last three that I watched, I saw a negative bias — favoring a "glass half full" view.

"Obama's Deal" seems overly negative about the dealmaking necessary to passage of healthcare reform. For example, the show ends with the narrator wondering about the cost to Obama of getting healthcare passed. The narrator fails to note the cost had it not passed, which would (as Republicans hoped) have crippled Obama. Nor did the narrator note the bump in credibility Obama received abroad when it did pass.

"Vaccine Wars": The show is overly negative towards parents who are opposed to vaccination. For example, it fails to look into the possibility that the parents have a valid point in regard to the large # of vaccines being given.

In another example, the show gives a lot of time to the health condition of a cheerleader who claimed to be harmed by a vaccine. Then, the narrator says her condition was a hoax as evidenced by a doctor claiming her condition was psychogenic. It is usual for doctors to label conditions as psychogenic when they are healed by alternative medicine. The claim of "psychogenic" by the doctor hardly represents evidence of a hoax. And why focus on this questionable case when there are many others who have suffered more provable harm from vaccines?

The documentary is excellent at presenting the evidence for the effectiveness of vaccines and their relative safety. But is too quick to dismiss the importance of the few who suffer harm as the price of "herd immunity" and the need to work harder to reduce this harm.

"College Inc" seems overly negative toward for-profit colleges. For example, it shows a graph of "median loan" burden of attendees of for-profit colleges vs. other private schools and state schools. It showed a much larger loan burden for students of for-profit schools. The graph is for the period 2007/2008. This could be a misleading graph as a key piece of info is missing: how long ago had the students finished school? Loan burden decreases each year after graduation. For-profit schools are a relatively new phenomenon and their graduates may be more recent. This is a blatant example of a poor use of statistics.

This show, in particular, has a biased narration which assumes without explanation that if you go to a for-profit college, you shouldn't get federal loans, and that pushing students to enroll is harmful (whereas pushing students to stay in public school, however strenuously, is generally regarded as helpful).

I'd like reporting which has less of an ax to grind. I'd like more raw data so that I can make the judgments without being told what to think. At the same time, I always gain understanding from Frontline. And, when not momentarily annoyed by negativity, always enjoy watching.

I appreciate that your ombudsman position exists and hope that my comments can be used to improve Frontline.

Alexandra Hopkins, La Crescenta, CA

. . . And to the NewsHour

In light of the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe, I find the Chevron "commercial" leading into the PBS NewsHour unsettling, to say the least. As a matter of fact, I think all of the underwriter promotions should be limited to the list that ends the sequence — provide the name of the organization only. I find the sequence of 24 or so incongruent images of people and oil rigs despicable. This should not be a forum for Bank of America to advance a PR effort. I know this practice was deliberated earlier. However — the practice should not continue. I suppose in some small measure this is an editorial issue — one that should be examined again.

Thank you for your consideration.

Richard Kasunick, Agawam, MA

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